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The Viking way of death

A whole-school project was designed to enable pupils with widely varying abilities to delve into history together. Marjorie Gorman reports

Cricket Green, in the London borough of Merton, is a school for pupils with a diverse range of special educational needs. Each year, with the encouragement of headteacher Celia Dawson, the whole school conducts a cross-curricular project on an imaginative theme, enabling all pupils to realise their potential and show what they can do.

When teachers started planning their approach to the history theme, they decided to use the wealth of information that has come from Viking burial sites, and develop a festival based on the burial of Eric, a fictitious Viking.

The Vikings is a curriculum topic at key stage 2, a suitable level for many of the school's pupils. By modifying some of the activities, teachers ensured relevant learning of knowledge, skills and understanding at each key stage.

The school has 125 pupils aged five to 16, who follow a modified curriculum with emphasis on literacy and numeracy. Staff work together to ensure that all pupils receive an enriching education that meets their individual needs and helps them develop self-confidence and self-esteem.

The whole-school projects also provide opportunities to maintain important links with mainstream schools. Teachers have high expectations of their pupils, some of whom move on to college or back into mainstream schools.

Following the plan, brainwave of head of art Paul Lansley, pupils in KS4 made a life-size manikin of a Viking chief, to be buried with ceremony in the school grounds. Other pupils explored various aspects of Viking life and culture in detail and made models of arms and armour, clothes and other artefacts that were traditionally buried with such a chief. At the end of the project week, visitors from other schools were invited to join in a Viking festival of music and drama.

Pupils were encouraged to ask questions, such as: who were the Vikings? Where did they come from? Why did they come to England? When did they come? How did they live? What did they look like? What did they wear? What did they eat?

A wide range of resources was explored - books, maps, videos, DVDs and several excellent websites. There was much talk about how Viking burials differed from present-day customs. Teachers commented on pupils'

enthusiasm. As Patricio O'Brian, ICT specialist teacher, said: "They wanted to learn and they don't always want to." Classroom assistants remarked that the project encouraged pupils to use reading and writing skills.

On the morning of the festival, the school was buzzing with excitement and there were signs of the Viking "invasion" everywhere - pictures, writing, models and clay-work, and there was a lovely smell of baking bread.

Eric was lying "in state" in the art room with pupils making adjustments to his attire with the help of staff. There was some concern about his head - it seemed very loose. His helmet, it was hoped, would hold it in position during the burial.

When I expressed surprise at his richly coloured silk cloak, the group told me that, although ordinary people would have home-made woollen or linen clothes, a rich chief such as Eric could have had a cloak of silk.

The Vikings were traders as well as warriors. This group had copied the costume patterns from a computer program. Fortunately, one of the girls said, they did not have to weave the fabric, as it had taken them a long time to produce even a short length of fabric on the simple loom they had set up outdoors.

Pupils in KS3, encouraged by Patricio, made Eric's shoes in their design and technology lessons. They had used their ICT skills to find a website which provided useful patterns and information about how the Vikings cured animal skins to produce leather.

They were also making "bacon bread", according to a Viking recipe - some of it to go in the grave with Eric, the rest to be shared among children and visitors.

A couple of boys had made a set of figures for a Viking board game which is similar to chess. They learned that pieces made of glass, bone and clay had been found in several Viking graves but not many playing boards, which were made of wood, had survived.

I joined a discussion with the pupils who dug the trench. They had found some pieces of bricks and wondered why they were there, and where they had come from. They started asking questions, just like archaeologists, and discovered that, before the school was built, there was a row of houses on the site. The caretaker had lived in one of the houses and he came and talked to them about it.

Other pupils were writing names and messages using runes. Some of those who have difficulty with normal writing found it much easier to make the straight lines required for runes. Many of the pupils had designed and made amulets and jewellery, helmets, axes, swords and shields, some of them beautifully decorated.

In the infant classrooms, children were eager to show me their pictures of Vikings and the photographs taken during a drama lesson when they imagined they were Viking warriors of long ago, rowing across the sea in long boats.

Among a wide selection of reference books, the detailed pictures in the Usborne history series were good for small-group discussions.

The youngest children enjoyed the fictional stories of Noggin the Nog Particularly useful websites: Marjorie Gorman is a freelance education consultant

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